The term ‘unconditional love’ seems to have only appeared fairly recently in human history and is, I think, a product of the modern liberal western mentality which is obsessed with such notions as loving oneself and of always being affirmed and never judged. Past generations didn’t use the term because they simply had no need to. Because they better understood what love is than do people today, the term simply wasn’t necessary. One just talked about love. But because the term is so becoming so increasingly widespread even amongst Christians, we do need to give it some thought. Indeed, a great many believers seem to be incapable of talking about God’s love without needing to be constantly emphasising that it’s unconditional. But is it, though? Is it biblically correct to speak in terms of God’s love being unconditional?
Think of it like this! A coin has two sides and not just one, and many things in life similarly have more that just one aspect to them. So if we talk about something that has various aspects as if it only had one, then although what we say may be true in so far as it goes, it won’t be the whole truth of the matter and will actually be misleading. This is happening more and more in regards to how Christians are increasingly defining God’s love, and the result is not only that they are deceiving themselves, they are also deceiving unbelievers through the unbiblical content of their so-called evangelism.
I concur that it is most certainly the case that love is unconditional; but to merely emphasise that aspect of it’s nature, but to not also represent the other side of the coin, is to completely misrepresent what it is, and to completely fail to properly define it. You can no more have unqualified unconditional love than you can have a one-sided coin. Love that is not unconditional could not be considered to be love, but neither could something be considered to be love which claims itself to be solely unconditional with no further qualification! One-sided coins simply don’t exist, and neither does a love which claims as the only aspect of its nature it’s unconditionality.
Think of parents raising their kids. Any parent worth their salt loves their children unconditionally; but precisely because they love them unconditionally they also, by very definition, desire their ultimate happiness and well-being. Good, decent and responsible parents instinctively know that in order to accomplish this the child must be taught right from wrong and good from bad, and that the parent must be ready, whenever necessary, to actually impose discipline on the child in order to bring about that end. Parents who care nothing about their children’s behaviour, whether it be good or bad, and who care nothing about their developing characters, whether their kids are nice or horrible, and then claim that their lack of concern is because they love their children unconditionally, would not just be extremely bad parents, they would also be talking complete nonsense. Doing whatever is necessary in order to ensure that their childrens’ behaviour is moving from bad to good, and from wrong to right, is one of the necessary evidences that parents do indeed love their children. To then add the (completely unnecessary) caveat that such parents also love their children unconditionally is simply another way of saying that they love their children. A good parent, by very definition, loves their child unconditionally at any and every point in their moral development, but precisely because they do love their children with such unconditional love, they also cannot help but want to see them continually improving in their human and moral development. The ‘other side of the coin’ of love being unconditional is, therefore, that love also seeks to improve, in whatever way it can, the condition and well-being of its object.
The reason that love is, by very definition, unconditional, and why it could never be said to be love otherwise, is because the only alternative would be that it had to be earned. It would need to be secured by ongoing acceptable performance. But of course such could never be said to be love! It is simply the gaining of favour through merit, which is an entirely different thing to being loved! Conversely, however, to claim to ‘love’ someone whilst doing nothing to bring about their improvement is equally a complete mockery. You might as well assure a starving beggar in the street that you love him unconditionally, and then add that precisely because your love for him is unconditional it doesn’t matter whether or not you give him some food. Such would be both a mockery and travesty of any notion of love!
I therefore put it to you that the reason so many Christians are increasingly putting such emphasis on God’s love being unconditional, and going so completely out of their way to assure people that He loves everyone ‘just the way they are’, is because they have been deceived by the prevalent over-emphasis on the unconditional aspect of the nature of love, and the idea that the behaviour of those who are its objects is irrelevant to that love. And what this does, however unintentionally, is to spread the falsehood that the fact that God loves people unconditionally means that He won’t ever judge and punish them. Such is, of course, exactly what unrepentant sinners love to hear! It is a ‘gospel’ of having all the benefits of there being a divine Creator, but a Creator who puts no moral requirements upon those He has created, and Who will never punish them for their rejection of Him! What more could unrepentant sinners want by way of a totally false gospel? All the sin and depravity you could possibly want – with God’s unconditional love thrown in! And it’s Christians who are actually encouraging unbelievers to think like this. But here’s the problem: no such God, and therefore no such gospel, actually exists!
Of course God loves unbelievers unconditionally! Of course He loves them just the way they are! If you don’t love someone just the way they are then that’s just another way of saying that you don’t actually love them. But that doesn’t change the fact that, at the Great White Throne Judgement, this God-Who-unconditionally-loves-everybody-just-the-way-they-are will nevertheless throw those who haven’t repented of their sins, and who haven’t put their trust in Him, into the Lake of Fire for all eternity. However discomfiting to the modern mindset it might be, being loved unconditionally by the God Who actually does exist will avail those who reject Him absolutely nothing. Those who reject Him, and who refuse to repent, will be eternally lost, and the fact that in His love for them He has provided a way of escape, yet a way of escape which they refused to take, will make not the slightest bit of difference to fact of their eternal damnation!
Precisely because of His love the Lord has done everything necessary in order to provide salvation for all, but in order to receive that salvation the sinner must repent and believe, and if they don’t, then eternal judgement is all that awaits them! And the reason the Lord won’t let such into Heaven, even though He does indeed love them unconditionally, is because, as we have seen, there is no such thing as a love which doesn’t seek the improvement of the one loved, and therefore no such thing as a love that can’t be rejected by its object. If someone refuses to be improved by the unconditional love of God (or of anyone else for that matter), then the fact that He does so love them makes no ultimate difference. In refusing to be improved by Him they put themselves beyond anything further He can do. Though loved beyond measure, those who refuse to surrender shut themselves out from that love, and are thereby lost in their sins for all eternity. Moreover, if they so disliked the idea of being morally improved by a righteous God in this life, then just think how much they would hate being in Heaven in the next, where that same holiness and righteousness will be utterly revealed and totally all-encompassing! Don’t get me wrong! I’m not suggesting that they won’t hate being in the Lake of Fire, they most certainly will, but as those to whom God granted their desire to not be morally improved by Him, and to not be set free from their sin, they would also hate being in Heaven, though for completely different reasons!
The notion of a God of love Who just ignores sin, and Who accepts everyone just as they are, and Who is too loving to ever judge or punish anyone, is a complete fantasy! In fact, it is the most ridiculous and full-blown nonsense! There could no more be a God-of-love-but-not-righteousness-and-justice than there could be a coin with only one side. Love is, as we have seen, most certainly unconditional, but unconditional love, precisely because it is love, can never disregard the moral condition of its object.
There are ramifications here for believers too, and they are profound! We need to understand – indeed, be greatly reassured – that, as God’s children, He doesn’t love us any more when we are being obedient and faithful, and neither does He love us any less when we are sinning and in disobedience. When we are being obedient and faithful He smiles on us, but when we are sinning and being disobedient to Him, He still smiles on us, but desires to also discipline us and deal with our rebellion. He will even, if necessary, turn away from us relationally until we properly respond so as to restore our fellowship with Him. I don’t mean that He might not let us into Heaven after all, of course not! The believer getting to Heaven depends solely upon Jesus’ death, and there is nothing that can undo that! No! What I mean is that if we have un-dealt with sin in our lives then we are kidding ourselves if we think He is listening to us any more. He isn’t!
“If I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me!” That’s what scripture says!
When we are in unrepentant sin the Lord just patiently waits for us to come clean and get right with Him so He can restore our relationship with Him. In such a circumstance the only thing He is saying to us, irrespective of anything we say to Him is, “Come clean and repent of that sin! You must say you are sorry!” (I have even from time to time found myself desperately repenting of just about everything except the specific thing He is actually convicting me of. Funny old world, isn’t it?)
Married couples understand this principle only too well! A husband who is unkind or disrespectful to his wife before he goes to work can hardly expect his relationship with her to be as it ought to be when he gets home, until he has put things right with her and said the needed sorry. It’s not that he and his wife have stopped being married, but rather that sin has disrupted the relationship between them until things are put right! So even though God’s children, we can nevertheless still be out of fellowship with Him relationally should we harbour unrepentant sin in our lives.
Perhaps we could put it like this: The issue isn’t actually whether God loves us, it’s whether or not we love Him; and Jesus said, “If you love me you will obey my commands.” Being loved is irrelevant unless the one who is loved responds in kind!
So let’s be a bit careful then when we talk about love being unconditional. Let’s make sure that we never, even inadvertently, give unbelievers reason to think that God’s love for them means that He isn’t concerned with how they behave or with their moral condition. Our loving God, precisely because He is love, will one day judge the living and the dead, and unrepentant sinners who have never embraced His salvation will be thrown into the Lake of Fire. That they were loved by Him is ultimately irrelevant to their impending eternal damnation! Their problem is that they didn’t love Him, and therefore refused to obey Him. Any understanding of God’s love that doesn’t take this sobering fact into account is pure, unadulterated deception!
For us as believers though what matters is simply this: precisely because the Lord loves us just the way we are, He wants to also improve us so that we don’t stay just the way we are. He wants to mature us, and to move us forward in Him into ever greater fulness of the Spirit and holiness of life.
As scripture so simply and clearly says, “Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.”